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Introduction to George Bond's book on Sarvodaya

Introduction to George Bond's book on Sarvodaya

The state of the world at the onset of the 3rd millennium reveals the dark side of globalized capitalism. For all its proclaimed advantages, the unconstrained drive to maximize corporate profits brings spiraling poverty and ecological devastation in its wake. Now, more than ever, in all walks of life, people are questioning the core values this system embodies and promotes. Must our "bottom-line" be monetary gain for the privileged few? Are we doomed to compete for a place at the top, or can other values organize our culture and serve our well-being? Every person, who is concerned with such questions, deserves to know the story of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.

The story begins in Sri Lanka in 1958, when high school students from Colombo were inspired by their science teacher to hold work camps in the poorest of rural areas. Digging latrines and cleaning wells with the local villagers, they found the sharing of labor (shramadana) to be exhilarating and productive, though they could not have imagined what would grow from that modest beginning. The science teacher, A.T. Ariyaratne guided their efforts with Gandhian principles he had studied in India, and cast them in terms of their culture's traditional Buddhist values, adapting Gandhi's term sarvodaya to mean the "awakening of all." That is how he and his colleagues soon defined development--not as westernization or industrialization, but as people waking up together. As the practice of shramadana spread and villagers began to awaken to janashakti (people's power), a grassroots movement gradually took form, eventually spreading to a hundred villages, and then over a thousand, and now some fifteen thousand. By the 1970s the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement was drawing the attention of foreign scholars and donor agencies, who recognized it as a rare example of "appropriate," people-centered development and an alternative to the capital-intensive schemes favored by the World Bank. On the Sri Lankan scene the Movement grew ever more visible, as funding from overseas enabled Sarvodaya to enlarge its headquarters, expand its paid staff, and build district centers, training schools and demonstration farms.

It was during this period, in the mid-1970s, that I first came to Sarvodaya. I was fascinated by the role played by Buddhist teachings and Buddhist monks in its philosophy and organizing methods. Knowing I could learn a lot about using spiritual traditions to empower social change work, I returned to spend a year with the Movement as a "participant-observer," immersing myself in its activities at the village level. From that experience I wrote Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement. The book focused on the guiding principles I saw at work, and on the grass-roots practices that embodied them. Ever since that initial immersion over twenty years ago, Sarvodaya has been a presence in my life and thought. The lessons I learned from it have stretched my notions of what is possible, and lent confidence to my own work, in the United Sates and abroad, for the emergence of a life-sustaining civilization.

Convinced that the Sarvodaya Movement is one of the great social experiments of our time, I have yearned for a more up-to-date study than mine. There were questions I wanted such a book to address. For example, Sarvodaya's relations with the Sri Lankan government, which had once been so close I had worried about co-optation, changed drastically when President Premadasa launched an all-out campaign to discredit and destroy the Movement. What changes did that bring to Sarvodaya's programs? At other times, when donor agencies substantially reduced the aid they had provided, and/or made it contingent on requirements of their own, what effect did that have on Araiyaratne's vision for the movement? What conditions surrounded the creation of Sarvodaya's distinctive community banking and micro-credit schemes? And the nineteen-year long civil war, in what ways did that devastating conflict across ethnic and religious lines reshape Sarvodaya, and what strategies allowed it to serve the cause of peace?

This fine book by George Bond deals directly with questions such as these, bringing a wealth of research and a sensitive, respectful eye. Thanks to his work, the ongoing story of Sarvodaya is available now to readers around the world, and shows how the Movement's core values continue to inform its responses to changing circumstances.

These values, it is worth noting, are not defined in terms of one particular religious tradition; they are perceived and applied in a non-sectarian fashion. As Professor Bond takes pains to point out, Sarvodaya under Ariyaratne's guidance appeals to a universal spirituality. While informed by Buddhist teachings, the crucial importance the movement accords to self-restraint, generosity, and lovingkindness is not constrained by religious boundaries, nor is Sarvodaya's goal of freeing people from greed, hatred, and ignorance. Although as fallible as any human endeavor, Sarvodaya still holds to these aims, grounded as they are in the interdependence of all life. Sarvodaya believes that people can work together, and has helped them do so. The ways it manages to keep on doing this, through the turbulence of a world in crisis, are worth our while to know.

Joanna Macy
Berkeley, California